BUNDIBUGYO, 8 December (IRIN) - A "rebellion without a cause". This is the description most often attributed to rebels of the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) who have been sowing terror and destruction in western Uganda for the last three years.
Normal activity in this fertile part of the country has been abruptly halted, as crops go untended in the fields and tens of thousands of people are forced to flee their homes to find shelter in the sprawling displaced people's camps surrounding the town of Bundibugyo. The unlucky ones are killed or abducted. Tourism in this beautiful part of the world is long dead. Trapped between the mountains and the vast Ituri forest extending well into Congo, Bundibugyo is tucked away in a remote part of Uganda at the foot of the Rwenzori mountain range close to the Congolese border. Its lifeline is a tortuous, twisting dirt road from the nearest town of Fort Portal - practically impassable when it rains, which it does frequently.
This spectacular road, overlooked by towering peaks and craggy hills, clings to the side of the mountains before plunging down into the Rift Valley. It is also one of the main areas of activity of the shadowy ADF rebels. Trucks from the World Food Programme (WFP), which has a very high profile here, are always escorted by the Ugandan army, including a 'Black Mamba' armoured personnel carrier. Each day, a public convoy also makes the journey under military escort. The relatively short distance takes three hours, and vehicles and people use the road at their peril.
The ADF, which decided to adopt Islam
as its ideology, was born from a core group of puritanical Moslems from
the Tabliq sect whose members portray themselves as "Moslem evangelists".
In Uganda, the Tabliqs claimed Moslems were being marginalised by the government.
Together with the obscure and largely defunct National Army for the Liberation
(NALU), the Tabliqs moved to western Uganda to start the rebellion under the ADF umbrella. They set up rear bases in neighbouring Congo where they began recruiting and training fighters with the promise of money and education. It was easier to recruit in Congo where the people were not hostile to the ADF.
The ADF has few links with western Uganda - its leaders come from areas in central Uganda with strong Islamic ties such as Iganga, Masaka and Kampala itself. A former Catholic, Jamil Mukulu, is said to be the driving force of the ADF. The group also includes some ex-commanders of former president Idi Amin's army.
Military sources told IRIN there were three main reasons why the rebels adopted western Uganda as their theatre of operations: the mountainous terrain, the proximity to Congo and the ability to exploit an existing ethnic conflict in the area. They coerced some local people to help them, especially the Bakonjo people with their extensive knowledge of the mountains. Using leaflets and a mobile radio in Congo (now dismantled), they tried to turn the population against the government by propaganda attacks against its policies. One such statement in 1998, signed by the ADF "chairman" Frank Kithasamba, warned that the group would "crack down" on those responsible for the deaths of its members and urged local people "to be on the lookout for politicians who kill and intimidate opponents and voters for their own interests".
There is little evidence of the ADF's Islamic claims. "They attack indiscriminately, just to kill," said David Magado Katesigwa, the assistant Resident District Commissioner (RDC) for Bundibugyo district. "They hit soft targets, such as the IDPs [internally displaced people]". Government workers and humanitarian officials alike are unable to explain the ADF's continued senseless killing, other than that the rebels are now on the run with nowhere to go. "They carry out revenge attacks because the local people refuse to support them," Katesigwa told IRIN.
The ADF problem exploded in 1997. Prior to that there had been sporadic attacks which did not appear to concern the government too much. President Yoweri Museveni, in his book 'Sowing the Mustard Seed' published in 1996, makes no mention of the insurgency in the west. But in 1997, the ADF launched a surprise attack on Ugandan soldiers at Mpondwe on the border with Congo in Kasese district. Attacks and atrocities escalated the following year with the army apparently unable to contain them, one of its problems being the lack of an adequate alpine force.
The army remains tight-lipped about the
number of troops it has in the area, or the strength of the rebels, but
it has been deploying thousands more soldiers to western Uganda, especially
after its recent success in containing a long-running rebellion in the
north of the country by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). The terrain remains
the biggest problem. "We
have to cut their supply lines or they may never be finished," one official told IRIN.
Military sources say the operation in the west is bearing fruit, largely attributed to the rebasing of Chief of Staff Brigadier James Kazini from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Kasese. He has conducted a resolute campaign to flush out the rebels, by placing detachments along the hilltops where they had their bases. Sources say that due to the war in DRC and Uganda's collaboration with Congolese rebel groups in northwest and northeast DRC, the borders with Sudan and DRC have been secured, thus depriving the ADF of its supplies. Other measures, such as posting soldiers at intervals along the Fort Portal-Bundibugyo road, have also been taken and there is a noticeable military presence in the whole area. Self-defence units are undergoing highly visible training in Bundibugyo town - intended to boost confidence among civilians.
Forced from their hideouts, the rebels have now spread out, operating in small, disparate groups of three or four, in a line from Kasese to Hoima. There is also evidence they are moving eastwards towards Kampala, officials told IRIN. The government blames a recent string of bomb attacks in the capital on the ADF.
UNICEF, which has been studying the conflict, says there is evidence the rebels have acquired some military training. Government and humanitarian officials in the area agree, stressing that while previously the most common weapons were machetes, knives and a few guns, now all the rebels are armed with guns. The military believe Sudan is training and quipping the ADF, in much the same way as it supported the LRA rebellion in northern Uganda. Khartoum denies any involvement. Other officials moot the possibility of arms supplies from DRC President Laurent-Desire Kabila. "This rebellion was concretised by the war in Congo," one official said, pointing out that Rwandan ex-FAR and Interahamwe militias in Congo are now linking up with the ADF on Ugandan territory.
Humanitarian workers in the area do not believe the rebellion is yet under control. If anything, the current situation is very unstable. "There have been more attacks," said Joel Kibe of WFP in Bundibugyo. "Over the last two weeks it's been explosive." He believes that the army's current aggressive campaign has made the rebels more confrontational and is afraid the already huge numbers of displaced people are set to rise. At night, hundreds of people stream down from the mountains to seek safety in the town.
Katusiime is a young girl who arrived two days ago at a camp in the trading centre of Karugutu, high up in the mountains on the Fort Portal-Bundibugyo road, fleeing an ADF attack on another camp just outside Bundibugyo. She had been in the first camp after the ADF came and slaughtered several people in her village. Now she was on the move again. "They came to the camp and threatened people," Katusiime said. "There were many of them. They killed five people, and some were injured. They also took away some people alive."
Aid workers point out that the rebels, who mostly attack at night, are sometimes able to defy the soldiers who protect the camps. In such instances, it cannot be ruled out that rebel infiltrators may be hiding within the camps. Katesingwa, the assistant RDC, explained that an intensive campaign is underway to sensitise the people and encourage them to report any strangers in their midst.
Many of the inhabitants of the Karugutu camp have been there since the height of the ADF rebellion in 1997, says Reverend Stephen Kimara, who cares for the IDPs. The longer they remain there, the more afraid they are to return. One old man said that when they tried to return to their village a month ago, the ADF attacked again. Now, they are too scared to leave the camp.
In Bundibugyo town, the situation of the displaced people is much more fluid depending on the level of ADF activity, WFP's Joel Kibe told IRIN. If they feel safe, they will return to their homes and their farms. But given the current volatile situation, he expressed concern that people were unable to access their fields. "People are now eating their own food and are unable to replace it - they can't weed and there's no long-term planting."
He stresses that government and military officials are very cooperative. In a bid to ease the problem, the people are escorted to their fields by soldiers. But all around Bundibugyo abandoned cocoa trees and other lucrative cash crops are turning wild. Kibe says WFP stopped food distributions in the town itself, as many of the supplies were turning up in the markets. The food agency now makes deliveries to areas where the people feel safe enough to collect it.
Bundibugyo town is ringed by IDP camps.
Camps also dot the road leading to the town. The district as a whole is
coping with some 105,000 displaced people, with a further 30,000 in Kasese
district. Realising the problem was not going to be shortlived, WFP set
up a permanent presence in Bundibugyo in July 1999. Agencies such as ICRC,
Medecins sans frontieres
(MSF) and the World Harvest Mission are also operational in the district.
The Bundiwelume camp lies just 10 km
from the Congolese border and houses an entire parish of 3,831 people.
Camp chief, David Twesiime, explains the parishioners fled en masse when
the ADF struck earlier this year. The camp opened in June, but has not
been spared continued rebel atrocities. "They were last sighted here
three weeks ago," he says. "They came and took away some men
and two women." According to Twesiime, the men were "just killed".
The two women were freed for no apparent reason. "They said
they were told to do domestic chores," Twesiime added. According to
account, their captors spoke Luganda which indicated they were not from the area, and they all had guns.
Twesiime says the situation in the camp is now fairly stable. The more immediate problems are those of food, medicine, shelter and untreated water. He fears an outbreak of cholera, saying malaria, chickenpox and skin diseases are already affecting the camp's population.
In a strategy reminiscent of the Lord's
Resistance Army, the ADF also appears to have a policy of child abductions,
particularly from educational establishments. According to UN sources,
young children are taken and then sent back into villages and camps to
steal food for the rebels without rousing suspicion. Sometimes the children
are released and,
dazed and bewildered, eventually reunited with their families.
Young adults however are either killed
or subjected to much harsher treatment. A 26 year-old male abductee, who
managed to escape, has a harrowing story. He was part of a group of over
50 students, taken forcefully at night from their technical college at
Kichwamba, near Fort Portal, in 1998. The ADF told them they wanted help
in carrying arms and supplies into the mountains, and then they would be
freed. However, once they reached the mountains the students were tied
together. Those who resisted or tried to escape were immediately shot.
The others were beaten and tortured. For weeks, they were made to march
through the mountainous terrain, into Congo. They were rarely fed. When
they were offered food, it was a cow crudely slashed with knives and machetes
and shoved briefly in the fire. The rebels apparently said they did not
want to waste their
bullets. The bodies of several of the students were eventually found in Congo.
The human rights organisation, Human
Rights Watch, detailed the Kichwamba atrocity, noting that the establishment
was attacked by a group of 200-300 rebels who set the building alight after
students locked themselves in their dormitories. Many of the students burned
to death. HRW said the ADF has repeatedly targeted schools in attempts
to forcibly recruit large
numbers of children and young adults.
The people of Bundiwelume camp believe it will be a long time before they can return permanently to their homes. Fear is rife, and these sentiments are echoed in most camps throughout Bundibugyo district. "The people have incredibly high expectations of the army," said one aid worker. "It's all they have left."
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